Like many other readers, I've been waiting for Carla Kelly's newest full-length novel, Beau Crusoe, since I finished The Wedding Journey in 2002 , already almost five years ago (!). It's been too long.
Stranded alone on a desert island, he had lived to tell the tale. A triumphant return to the ton saw James Trevanen hailed as Beau Crusoe - a gentleman of spirit, verve and action. But only he knew the true cost of his survival!
Susannah Park had been shunned by Society. She lived content with her calm existence...until Beau Crusoe determinedly cut up her peace! The beautiful widow wanted to help him heal the wounds of the past - but what secrets was this glorious man hiding?
From this back cover blurb, I was expecting a little lighter Kelly reading experience than what I got. Yes, the blurb says, "Shipwrecked!" but it also says, "triumphant return." And while triumphant return is technically accurate, as James is being awarded a prestigious medal for his scientific observations about a certain type of fiddler crab found on his island, James himself is hardly triumphant. More like hanging on to his sanity by his fingertips. He was alone on that island for five years. All alone fighting starvation and memories of a bitter survival process. This guy has BAGGAGE.
By contrast, the blurb makes Susannah sound a bit more of a pariah than she actually is. No, she isn't received into society due to her youthful indiscretion of eloping with a man far her social inferior, but she doesn't actually care much about that. She's basically at peace with her life as an artist living with a young son, she only wishes her family - and especially her sister, Loisa - could forgive her. And a little financial security would be nice.
While I can't say I regret reading, or even buying, Beau Crusoe, the book does have a number of problems. Kelly throws James and Susannah together by a piece of family manipulation. Susannah's godfather is to host James in London before the awards ceremony, but he uses his gout as an excuse to place James in Susannah's parents' house instead, effecting an introduction to his goddaughter. From the initial introduction, the two of them are off and running, both of them acknowledging that isn't not quite de rigeur for her to chaperone him around as an unmarried, albeit widowed, woman, but using any opportunity to snuggle each other. One or two indiscretions could be overlooked, but James and Susannah kiss in public and wander the house in the middle of the night. She enters his room and stays there - or invites him to her room - when he's struggling with his midnight demons. All of this is highly irregular, and the servants would have noticed and noted. Susannah's widow status would have only given her so much wiggle room; certainly not this much.
Secondly, Kelly resolves Susannah's conflict with her bitter and prickly sister, Loisa, far too neatly. At the beginning of the novel Loisa is awful, the kind of woman who would torment her young nephew as an outlet for her own unhappiness. She is judgmental, sour, and unkind. But all of her character flaws disappear and forgiveness magically emerges after James gives her a small task to do and points out a few home truths. Loisa then finds her own love, a love that presents quite a few challenges for the future, the reader must note.
Finally, there is the problem of Lady Audley, James's former lover. Kelly draws her as an evil nympho, presumably to shrug the blame off of James for his part in committing adultery. She adds nothing to the book except a rather forced plot climax and (an obligatory?) second love scene. It would have been preferable if James's "love" scenes with her had been behind closed doors: whenever he remembers her or thinks of her, his language turns raunchy and crude.
However, despite the above problems, I still can recommend this book. Kelly's clear narrative voice is fully present in Beau Crusoe as is her talent for wringing emotion out of the reader. James's backstory is throat-wrenchingly awful, a true tragedy, and the reader really feels how he suffered on his island and suffers now. His is a touching portrayal of PTSD complete with irrational fears, panic attacks, and an inability to be normal at times. You rarely see actual mental illness in romance, and James's is quite horrible and authentic.
Susannah is a less robust character, but a good match for James, quiet and soft and warm and completely accepting. You can see how being with her would be healing for him, and he needs desperately to be healed.
Overall, this is an enjoyable book from a talented author, warmer than usual in the sensuality department. Readers who want kisses only sensuality from Carla Kelly might be disappointed, but those of us who just want a good story will not.